Gunning For First Chair On an Alta Powder Day? You’ll Have to Beat This Guy

First Chair Brian has been first in the lift line for nearly every Alta powder day in the last 14 years.

Photo: John Shafer

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On an early April morning, two hours before the Collins lift starts cranking, one man is standing in the lift life, hood pulled tight over his helmet.

It’s shaping up to be a bluebird Utah day and the sun is creeping up over the east edge of Grizzly Gulch, but he’d be here even if the weather was grim. Especially on a powder day, with hundreds of other skiers jockeying at Collins, he’s first in the lineup.

That man, in his signature, subdued, super-layered ski kit, is Brian McGrath. Or, as he’s better known around Alta, First Chair Brian. That’s what’s inscribed on his AirPods case. It’s what the bagel breakfast sandwich he eats inside the Goldminer’s Daughter is called, and it’s the key to his skiing philosophy: Come snow, shine, or sour weather, he’s on the first chair of Collins every day.

Collins ski lift, Alta Ski Area
On a powder day at Alta Ski Area, make a beeline for the Collins lift. (Photo: Lee Cohen)

The 53-year-old took a few days off last winter after spraining his knee in a fall down Gunsight Gully, but other than that, he’s been here for almost every first chair for the last 14 years. He lives and works at the Rustler Lodge (nights, of course), so he can ski to the lift right from his door. This also allows him to sprint for the lift line and beat the crowds when the sheriff ends interlodge.

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Maybe it’s the legendary snow or the scraggly community, but Alta has long been a hub for obsessive skiers like McGrath. Mountain Host Bob Pratt, who has been skiing at Alta for the past 77 years, says those fervent skiers are the very core of Alta and have been since the beginning. According to Pratt, McGrath is the core of the core.

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“Alta has a soul and we’re all part of that family, especially those guys,” he says, gesturing toward McGrath. When Pratt heads inside to get a morning coffee, McGrath stays out, holding his spot in line as more people begin to trickle in.

I’ve been at Alta for 13 years. I was on Nantucket and spending winters at Park City before that. I came out 14 years ago, stayed in the Snow Pine bunk room, and met Rob Rowley, a friend who’s since passed. He started the whole first chair thing, and that sealed the deal.

Most of the real hardcore people are from the East. My home mountain, Bromley, in Vermont, is older than Alta by like a year.

There’s nothing like skiing when no one is ahead of you. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the thing I live for. Have you read Alf Engen’s book, “For the Love of Skiing”? That love is what it’s all about.

This, waiting in the lift line, is the time when you get information. You talk to the ski patrollers, see what they’re opening and if there are avalanches, then you decide where to go.

You can’t just leave your skis here and go in and get coffee. We had to put up a sign that said “No Leaving Skis” because it got so bad. There would be 300 pairs of skis in line. People would put them out and then go back to their cars and sleep. People break all the rules if you don’t enforce them.

There are about eight people in the hardcore first chair crew. But no one like me.

Say they declare interlodge. I would ski down from the Rustler Lodge right before that and wait in the GMD lodge. Then, at 7:30, we’d line up on the back side of that door right there. Back in the day there would be 50 people. I’d be first. They’d drop the interlodge and it was called the “running of the bulls.” You have to run with all your skis and poles. It was insane and I’d win every single time. I’m not bragging.

I almost got arrested once. One time we ran out before the interlodge was over. The deputy was parked here. He ran over yelling, “If you guys don’t get inside, I’m going to arrest all of you!” Turns out, you get a $1,000 fine for breaking an interlodge.

They don’t do interlodge as much anymore, they just shut down the parking lots. Alta’s changing because of Covid and Ikon passes. It’s more crowded and more corporate. But I’m still here.

It’s a long wait in the cold, so I’ve learned how to dress for it. I have many layers of long underwear on. I’ve got insulated pants. I like being warm and comfortable. I could stay out all day skiing and never go in.

We ski bell-to-bell sometimes, and there are rules. You’ve got to be on the first chair, you have to ski until last chair, and you can’t go inside. You can go to the bathroom, but just number one outside.


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